The lone parent trap

Single parents struggle to survive in Austerity Britain.

Lone parents are obliged to seek work as soon as their youngest child turns 5. The government says work is the best route out of poverty and that most lone parents want to work. What is it like to be a single parent on Jobseeker's Allowance?

Jen's story

When Jen Smith’s employer went bust she lost control of a life she had spent 20 years building. As a graphic designer earning around £30,000 a year it was not the first time she had lost a job, but in the past she had always found more work. This time was different. She was single and the mother of three-year-old Debbie.

It took only a few years for life to unravel. In three years of applying for "hundreds of jobs”, Jen got just four interviews and no job. Soon she had to remortgage the one-bedroom flat she shares with her daughter in Sutton.

The flat is tiny and beautifully decorated with Jen’s homemade jewellery and paintings. Mother and daughter share a room. “That I am living here at all is a miracle," she says. "I am not sure how long we can hang on to this flat.” It costs £690 a month for the mortgage, more than £100 for council tax, and £120 for the building’s management fees. In April Jen’s child tax credits dropped from around £500 to £350. “I have got an overdraft. I don’t how long this is going to last.”

In the past Jen temped between jobs. “You can’t temp when you are a single parent because you can’t do the childcare,” she says. “You can’t say to a childminder, 'I don’t know when I am going to be working. I think I have got a job in two weeks time; it might last for a week, it might last for a couple of days'.”

Around the same time she lost her job, Jen was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She laughs; she laughs a lot, always quick with a quip for each crisis. The quip about her depression comes courtesy of one Jobcentre advisor: “Bipolar. That’s a good one cause you can’t see it can you?” Again Jen laughs, the outrage only in her eyes.

The Jobcentre

Jen came to loathe the Jobcentre. She received Income Support until Debbie was five years old. This involved regular meetings with a lone parent advisor, who offered employment support and understood the practicalities of fitting work around raising children. But then came the government’s changes to welfare, and parents receiving Income Support had to switch to Jobseeker's Allowance when their youngest child turned five.

The maximum available on income support is £71.70, the same as the upper limit for JSA. The £119 figure quoted includes tax credits available, which are also available to those on JSA.

On Income Support parents receive a tailored service, including a lone parent advisor to help prepare them for work, discuss childcare options and 'better-off in work calculations'. The Jobcentre is not obliged to continue this provision for parents on Jobseeker's Allowance, though some centres do. But with the number of total claimants having doubled from over 750,000 in 2008 to nearly 1.5 million in 2012, even if a Jobcentre wishes to provide a tailored service to help lone parents into work it may lack the capacity to do so.

The constant wearing down

From 2008 to 2012 the number of single parent claimants in Britain rose from 5,000 to more than 145,000 as the government pushed more single parents from Income Support to Jobseeker's Allowance.

Jen sits on her hands to stop them shaking as she recalls the fortnightly trips to the Jobcentre.

“The constant wearing down, threatening you, and treating you as though you are less than a human being, it gets to you. I’m much better now, but I don’t know if I could ever be quite as confident as I had been.”

Sometimes Jen had to attend appointments after school, and so took Debbie along.

“It is scary for a child. They can feel their parents being upset and stressed.”

Some advisors spoke loudly and slowly when she said she had bipolar, others refused to acknowledge her responsibilities as a mother, despite central government guidelines requiring them to do so. Jen felt constantly on edge because advisors were quick to threaten her with sanctions if she questioned things, such as making her apply for jobs that clashed with school pick up times.

Jen’s laughter fades when she recalls the Jobcentre interview that was so stressful it led to her having a psychotic episode and being hospitalised. During the interview Jen was told that she was being placed on the Work Programme.

The Work Programme is a government initiative designed to support people who have been unemployed for more than one year into work. But Jen was not told this, and, based on her experience of the Jobcentre, assumed it was some sort of official punishment.

“I felt like I’d been picked on … bullied. I knew I was trying hard to find a job. So it just felt completely unfair and unjustified. This person had decided that I was a slacker. It makes you feel like you have got no options. It makes you feel like a cornered animal.”

Mark's story

Mark, a single father of a seven-year-old, is fortunate because his local Jobcentre in Somerset provides lone parent advisors. Despite this, he feels forced to make a choice between putting his son Jonathan first and getting a sanction, or complying with the Jobcentre.  

A Jobcentre advisor has the discretion to sanction a claimant – by docking their benefits – if they feel that person has failed to do enough to find work. For single parents this means losing a significant chunk of money they might use to pay for school dinners, for example, or replacing school uniform. Research by Single Parent Action Network found that unrealistic Jobcentre agreements that failed to account for childcare responsibilities made sanctions more likely. They argue that sanctioning lone parents as though they are single adults could impact on their children’s wellbeing.

“The lone parent advisors that I see are absolutely wonderful, they help where they can, but they are restrained by the law," Mark explains. "Yes I have got to do 15 things a week, but though they are understanding if I don’t show them I am doing those 15 things, they have got no choice but to refer me on to a higher person in the Jobcentre, who will then sanction.”

The main carer

When Mark, a trained carpenter, split up with his wife, he became their son’s main carer. Jonathan was 18-months old at the time, and Mark was confident he could balance his work as a self-employed carpenter and site foreman around the fifteen hours state-funded pre-school care on offer from the government at the time.

He says: “Some of my work being a carpenter is putting people’s roofs on. There were instances where I was working on a roof, they have got no tiles on, Jonathan then fell sick. I have got to say to the customer, ‘Sorry but you had better hope it doesn’t rain this week, because my boy is ill and I can’t work. I have got to be there look after him’.”

Eventually Mark decided to pack up the business and find work he could fit around being a full-time single parent. But like other single parents across the UK, Mark has struggled to find flexible work to fit around school term-time.

Mark picked an unlikely new profession after a meeting with his son’s head teacher.

“A letter came from school saying that Jonathan had been off sick too much. I was really angry because I had given up everything for Jonathan and I felt like the letter was saying that I was a bad parent,” says Mark.

Having seen Mark, a self-described “hefty lad” who has only ever done “masculine jobs”, work well with children when volunteering on school trips, Jonathan’s headmistress suggested he re-train as a teaching assistant. He now spends two days a week studying, and the rest of the time looking for work. The Jobcentre has done little to aid his search.

Driving Jonathan to school one morning Mark missed a call from the Jobcentre. They called again later that day; he missed the second call. Missing two calls from the Jobcentre cost Mark one week’s Jobseeker's Allowance, £71.70.

This was incredibly frustrating for Mark, who feels that a sanction for him is a sanction for Jonathan too. “Once his son's share of the electricity bill has been paid, what happens then?" Mark said. "Do we sit in darkness and just allow light for wherever my son is? Or do I turn the heating off for all the house except Jonathan’s bedroom?”  

Sometimes it's impossible to be a good parent and meet every official requirement. Both Mark and Jen found that Jobcentre advisors were unable or unwilling to acknowledge this.

Sanctions

Their experiences are borne out in research conducted by the charity Gingerbread for its Make it Work campaign, which found that sanctions were an ever-present threat in most conversations parents had with Jobcentre advisors.

Lone parent families are twice as likely as coupled families to live in poverty, and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the government’s tax and benefit changes could push a further 400,000 children into poverty by 2020. The government insists that finding work is the best route out of poverty. But when single parents do find work that they can fit around their children, it is likely to be precarious and low-paid. 

Joanne's story 

Joanne's 14-year-old son reckons she is a magician. He knows there is no money, but somehow mummy gets things done. He and his younger brother attend a good secondary school far from where they live in Harrow; and it is far away from where Joanne lived as a child in a care home, foster homes and with her grandmother in Stonebridge.

Sitting her two-year-old son down with a pen and paper, she describes how, aged twenty and not long out of care, she went for a regular sign on date at the Jobcentre. She was fed up with a stream of “stupid jobs” and tired of being sent to interviews for jobs she felt she had no chance of getting. So when her advisor asked what kind of job she wanted to apply for, she responded with typical north London school girl sass, “I reckon I could do your job, just as good as you or if not better.”

Joanne’s grins reveals all. “She looked at me and said, ‘well there’s vacancies at the moment, the deadline’s in two days. Then I applied. And got it.”

Public sector cutbacks

But, after several years, Joanne’s career at the Jobcentre ended with a round of public sector cutbacks. She dusted herself off for another round and used the redundancy package toward a degree in criminology and sociology. She hoped the qualification would help improve her chances of getting a job working with young people.

She says: “I’ve lived in their shoes. When I was going through a lot of things, there wasn’t no-one there that I could say had experience or knew what I was talking about. They had studied, read about things, but couldn’t empathise. Social workers, teachers, authority figures.”

Halfway through the second year, Joanne fell pregnant with her youngest son and found it impossible to keep up. Two years on, Joanne is ready to complete her degree, but lacks the funds. She has been on Income Support for eighteen months. She is desperate to find a job that will pay a living wage and to cover tuition and nursery fees. Out of frustration, she called up her lone parent advisor to ask for an extra interview that went beyond the usual box ticking. The outcome? Undergraduate Joanne was referred to basic English course.

As to the future, there is a new Morrisons opening and the Jobcentre sent Joanne for an interview. “If I get the job, how much money am I going to be earning? Once you are stuck in one of those jobs, you are stuck. There is no space for you to try and improve anything. There is work, trying to live hand to mouth, your brain can’t put anything more in there.”

The advisor's story

Emma-Louise Sylvester has spent years wrestling with how to support people like Joanne, whose needs are complex and defy Jobcentre categorisation. Emma worked at the Department of Health and for a welfare-to-work company before settling at Bromley By Bow Centre in Tower Hamlets, East London.

The centre’s ethos is to support or find support elsewhere for every person who walks through the door. And the staff reflect the community - white, brown, brown with headscarves - allowing the centre’s users to feel at ease in confiding their problems.

Bromley By Bow Centre tries to take a holistic approach to helping people on benefits, providing life coaching and encouraging volunteering. But the reality is this can take years to yield results.

Emma-Louise said: “I bumped into one lady and she said, ‘Emma, can I use you as my reference,’ I said, ‘yeah of course certainly.’ I had to double take, three years ago she didn’t speak any English and she has just got a job, 9-5 as an administrator. For me that is amazing. But that is a journey that took a long time.”

The right support

The lone parents who turn up at the centre via the Jobcentre are often the most difficult cases. One lone parent is a repeat client owing to the Jobcentre’s recurrent failure to provide the right support. This time when she turns up at the centre, it is because the Jobcentre want her to take a cleaning job starting at 6am and finishing at 8am. If she refuses she will lose a week's money, but she cannot afford childcare.

Little wonder. The average cost of full-time childcare in the UK is £11,000 a year, according to the Daycare Trust. Childcare in Britain is the second most expensive in the OECD, and state provision is patchy.

There are two million single parents in the UK, nine out of ten are women. What most have in common is a lack of part-time jobs paying a living wage, affordable childcare, or support to help them enter work after years spent raising children.

Alison's story

Alison, an unemployed lone parent, faces all these difficulties and more. Contending with the prospect of losing her home, the forty-year-old bookkeeper and mother of two admits there are times when she wants to burst into tears. “It is almost like you are stepping outside of your life. You can see it unwinding in front of you. It is really scary.”

Alison rarely sleeps for more than four hours a night. She worries about having to live in a hostel, about finding another job, and about her sons. When Alison split up with her former partner last year, he took most of the furniture and left her to pay the rent.

During the day, she busies herself trying to find solutions. Flicking through several faded A4 folders heavy with paper, she laughs as papers spill out across the table. Letters from the council, the Jobcentre, the Department for Work & Pensions. Keeping track of the admin is a full time job in itself.

Housing benefit

The solution to the furniture problem was a reclaim shop, set up to sell furniture to former prisoners. Alison stood outside for several minutes before plucking up the courage to enter. “I was so ashamed. I didn’t want to go in, but when I did they were so nice. There was that genuine understanding that, you were in need without them saying it.” For £28 she bought a table and three chairs.

Alison was also hit by the so-called 'bedroom tax'. Housing Benefit does not cover her rent completely and this leaves her scrambling to find the £170 per month shortfall. Even when she was working this was difficult. Out of work it is impossible.

Her savings of around £2,500 soon vanished after it took two months for the Jobcentre to pay her benefits. The family live on £113 Child Tax Credits a week, £71.70 in Jobseeker's Allowance, £33 in Child Benefit, and the payment towards housing. Last month her car failed an MOT. She must find £220 for repairs. The gas and electric bills have eaten up another £130. Last week she spent £20 replacing her sons’ sports kit and torn trainers. She says: “I just bought new ones and put them on my credit card. We are talking £4 tracksuit bottoms and things like that.” To save money Alison misses several meals a week. Without a credit card and overdraft, she fears they would starve.


Illustration: Patrick Koduah is a London based illustrator and animator whose prizewinning work includes projects exhibited in the Embassy of Japan, commissioned portraiture of Prince Michael of Kent and music video animation for the Rolling Stone Band of the Year 2012. 

This piece was commissioned and edited jointly by OurKingdom and the Friend, the independent Quaker magazine. It is published simultaneously in OurKingdom and, as a Fox Report, in the Friend. The Fox Report is the Friend’s investigative arm, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

About the author

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a freelance journalist and writer in residence at Lacuna: Writing InJustice. Her reporting on asylum and undocumented migration was shortlisted for the 2012 George Orwell Prize for Political Writing (blog category) and the 2013 Speaking Together Media Award.